He was the cruel taskmaster who made Harrison Ford hang with snakes and rats, required Robert Duvall to shave his head and turned Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill into Pez dispensers.
George Lucas was presented with The American Film Institute’s annual lifetime achievement award Thursday night. He was hailed as an innovator whose “American Graffiti” created a 1950s and early ’60s nostalgia craze and ushered in a new era of special effects with his “Star Wars” films.
Lucas, 61, said he was “honored and a bit bewildered” considering that by his count he has made only three movies — “THX 1138,” “American Graffiti” and the six “Star Wars” flicks, which he views as one long film.
Lucas said he was hesitant when approached about the prestigious award. Previous recipients include Alfred Hitchcock, Bette Davis, James Stewart, Meryl Streep and Lucas’ pal, Steven Spielberg.
With odd humility for a filmmaker whose movies helped shape the modern blockbuster age, Lucas said he wondered, “Who would come” to the ceremony?
“I halfway expected to have a room full of stormtroopers and Princess Leias,” he said.
Instead, he had a roomful of adoring colleagues and fans.
“THX 1138” star Duvall recalled for the crowd how he had to shave his head for Lucas’ first film, a cult sci-fi satire of consumerism and dehumanization.
A major hitFisher and Hamill — Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker of the first three “Star Wars” movies — ribbed Lucas for the merchandizing empire the films created, including Pez dispensers, shampoo bottles and electric toothbrushes based on their characters.
“People are still asking me if I knew it was going to be that big of a hit,” Fisher said of the first “Star Wars” movie in 1977. “Yes, we all knew. The only one who didn’t know was George.”
Lucas’ final “Star Wars” film, “Revenge of the Sith,” opened in May and is climbing toward a $400 million domestic gross.
Lucas took some roasting for his occasional failures, notably the 1986 flop “Howard the Duck,” on which he was executive producer.
William Shatner — Capt. Kirk from another great space saga, “Star Trek” — offered a musical number “from one star voyager to another.” He performed a variation of “My Way,” telling Lucas “you did it your way” while dancers in “Star Wars” stormtrooper costumes did a chorus line routine.
“Live long,” Shatner told Lucas. “You’ve already prospered enough.”
'King of wooden dialogue'Lucas poked fun at himself over his reputation for clunky dialogue, thanking mentor Francis Ford Coppola for helping him to hone his writing skills.
“He took me from not being able to write a word in terms of writing screenplays to being the king of wooden dialogue,” Lucas said.
Ford mentioned the snakes, bugs and rats he performed with on the three “Indiana Jones” movies Lucas produced and Spielberg directed.
Lucas and Spielberg have been developing a fourth installment in the adventures of globe-trotting archaeologist Indy, which they hope to shoot next year.
“I do love Indiana Jones, and if you guys can dream up more ways to torture me, I’ll be there for ‘Indiana Jones 4,”’ said Ford, also a past recipient of the AFI life-achievement prize.
Spielberg, who presented the award to Lucas, said his friend and collaborator stood alongside H.G. Wells and Jules Verne as an emissary who brought science fiction to the masses.
“You have many years ahead of you to create the dreams that we can’t even imagine dreaming,” Spielberg said. “You have done more for the collective unconscious of this planet than you will ever know.”
Lucas offered thanks to Spielberg, Coppola and other colleagues and said that if he had not gone into filmmaking, he had no idea what he would have done with his life.
“I’m also extremely grateful that I discovered my passion. I love movies,” Lucas said. “I love to watch them, I love to make them.”
The AFI show honoring Lucas will air June 20 on the USA Network.